Friday, January 6, 2017

Maze of the Blue Medusa (Actual Play Report)

Started running Mazeof the Blue Medusa for my Friday night group.
Realized there were very few “actual play” reports.
Thought I’d write one and fix that.

System: Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed.

Group: 5-8 PCs, depending on the night. Healthy mix of veterans and newbies. 60/40 male/female split. Age range between 24 and 39 and our typical soundtrack is 90s hiphop, just in case anyone cares about stuff like that.

Format: PCs are in bold. NPCs are in italics. I’ll highlight them the first time they appear in a section because I think it makes these reports easier to follow.

Intent/Assumptions: I’m assuming you have the book or the pdf so I’ll only give skeleton details. I’m not going to list game stats or plagiarize anything, but I’ll quote it now and again. If I’m a liar or I’m giving up too much/too little info, let me know so I can fix it. My intent is to share the experience of running Maze with y’all, from my own biased perspective, and obviously, there are spoilers.

Pitch: On a moonlit night in a nameless city, a desperate band of thieves steals a famous painting - The False Chantrelle.  If the legends are true, the painting is really a portal to a fabulous lost world, where treasures untold lie beneath the dust of eons. This is the story of those thieves, and of that legend, which happened to be mostly true.

THE HEROES (Level 1)
Fitzy, Air Genasi Sorcerer. Noble runaway. Really wants to find his dad. Assumes everyone knows about Genasi stuff and high society life because why wouldn’t he? Thoughtful and analytical.
Smallbeard, Dwarf Wizard. He was on his way to becoming a petulant little crime lord when… well, you’ll see.
Teka, Human Fighter. Rastafarianish. Tight with the Bard.
Jezebel, Human Fighter. Soft-spoken, hard-hitting, practical.
Nagus, Ferengi Cleric of the Great Nugget. Because someone is a special snowflake and can’t just roll a damn Elf.
Moonblossom Honeywine, Wild Elf Bard. Anti-materialist. Thinks all art should be free, man. Like, literally free. Impetuous. Tight with Teka.
Ea, Tiefling Monk. She’s got a demon-stone-thing that ruined her childhood and she can’t get rid of it, so she wanders and hides and wanders and hides, a lot. These thieves are kind of her buffer against the outside world, so she sticks close because there’s a cult that wants the stone and… Actually, have you seen The Final Sacrifice, or (more likely) that MST3K episode where they riff it? She’s Zap Rowsdower. A bright red, gender-swapped, ram-horns-and-hooves-havin’ Rowsdower.


Moonlight hits The False Chantrelle. Chantrelle stirs within the frame and silently calls for help. A cautious party touches the painting, realizing that it is, in fact, a portal to another world. Fitzy throws coins at it. He fusses like Woody Allen and wants to conduct experiments. Nagus is dead-set against going in. Other party members, especially Moonblossom share the total opposite sentiment: She’s the first one to go through the portal, and by the time Fitzy and Nagus finally stop pacing and take the plunge for themselves, she’s already freed Chantrelle from her chains and gone on to the next room. Nobody interrogates Chantrelle (not seriously, anyway: They learn she’s a slave and a prisoner and that she’s disoriented, but that’s about it) – they feel sorry for her, apparently, or they’re caught up in the wave of their own reckless excitement, or both. Chantrelle plays the role of the confused victim and escapes without incident as the party pursues Moonblossom into the next room.

Moonblossom meets Lady Crucem Capelli and, picking up on her draconic heritage, starts to apply some subtle flattery. Lady Capelli is haughty but pleasantly charmed by the elf’s attentions – but the moment is ruined by Fitzy when he starts to ask pointed, logical questions. “Who are you?” “How long have you been here?” “What is this place?” “Are there treasures here?” Lady Capelli gives him cagey answers out of irritation, like an annoyed parent placating an inquisitive six-year-old.  The others swing the conversation around to art, and Lady Capelli lights up, forgets Fitzy, and gives them all a fetch-quest in a moment of whimsy: “Find me some music, good music, and then tell me what you think of it. If your opinions are worth anything, I’ll reward you for them.” The party seems pleased with that. They don’t press her for specifics, and Moonblossom is already opening another door, so off they go.

There’s a weird, Escher-esque staircase up ahead. As the party tries to get to the bottom (or the top?) of it, they run into a band of seven Oku (random encounter: human thieves perpetually dressed in bird-masks, prone to fits of insanity). Half the Oku are acting rationally; half are preening themselves like birds. The Oku leader is surprised to see the party and asks if they’ve seen Akerstrom. Someone doesn’t like someone else’s tone; the mood turns aggressive and the conversation breaks down pretty fast. The PCs throw the first punch. [This happened three weeks ago, so I can’t recall specifically what led to the fight, only that it was totally the players’ fault].
Smallbeard casts sleep and two Oku go down. Jezebel gets a spectacular critical and glory-kills one from full health in a single two-handed chop. Fitzy miscalculates his thunder-wave and gets stabbed a few times for his inaccuracy; likewise, Moonblossom gets a good knifin’ and nearly passes out from blood loss. When the murder-make concludes and the bodies are looted, the party is the proud new owner of a crappy map, a slime-polished zircon, some blood-soaked cloaks, knives and masks, and a tin of enchanted lip balm. “Enchanted lip balm! Behold! Whatever you kiss while wearing this balm, it shall form a mouth and speak to you!” The group immediately decides to save it for weird blowjobs.

At the bottom of the stairs, there’s a door without a handle. Neither Teka nor Jezebel can force it open, and no one brought Thieves’ Tools. Smallbeard emphatically suggests they use the lip balm to kiss the door and find out how to open it, but he’s openly derided for his wastefulness. In a passive-aggressive huff, he goes back up the stairs to sulk.  Nobody follows after him. The party gives up on the locked door, goes back up the stairs, and winds up in a totally different room than the one they expected.

(Subfoetens & the Shell: I changed this room a bit. I made the Shell into a big, Cthulu-esque sea-monster, upped its hit dice, and made it a dedicated caretaker to the weird child-thing. No mechanical reason; I just liked this take on it.)
The party (minus Smallbeard) stands at the threshold of a dark room where the sound of light snoring mixes with a phlegmatic lullaby.  Characters with darkvision notice a door on the far end of the room, and also a horrible nautiloid thing holding some kind of creepily organic cradle. Stealth is agreed upon as the best option and, sticking together, they quietly move past it. All except Moonblossom. She’s last in line, and she can’t help but try to harmonize with the lullaby. Her performance is miserable. The child-thing in the shell-basket awakens and screeches, and the party goes a little bit insane. (Perform skill check roll of 2, baby wakes and drains 3 Wisdom from the whole party). The freaked-out heroes book it, fast.

               The party flees until they discover a large, plain room, in the center of which is a bizarre sight: a grasshopper-headed idiot worm-child gnawing on screaming chess pieces. This is Gibba Gognata, one of the Medusa’s spawn, and the party falls in love with him. They try to defend the chess pieces, yelling at him half-heartedly that eating people is wrong, but as players, it’s toward the end of the night, we’re all a little buzzed or tired, and this encounter just turns into a bunch of inside jokes and funny voices and yeah, fun stuff.

               Meanwhile, Smallbeard finds his way back to Lady Capelli, and is complaining to her about this party he’s stuck with. “They are ridiculous! Fools! They wouldn’t listen to me, so I’m going to find these treasures for myself. What’s through that door over there?” Lady Capelli is amused. She states coyly that she won’t tell him. She doesn’t want to ruin the aesthetic purity of his experience with the Maze. She does, however, wish him luck.

               Smallbeard ventures into a room filled with weird lighting and constantly shifting shadows. He makes it about six feet in, then trips into a pit created by his own cast shadow. He’s injured, alone at the bottom of a pit, and the top of the pit is now a stone slab. He panics a bit, then considers his options and concocts an escape plan. His plan is this: Cast light on his walking stick, affix his stick through a backpack loop so that it’s casting his shadow on the ceiling, then climb up the wall and out through the shadow-hole. He gets so close. At the last second, he flinches; the shadow’s shape changes and he is cut in half by a stone floor which wasn’t there a second ago. He dies alone and afraid, in a strange place, and no one mourns his passing.

One of the things I like about Patrick and Zak S’s work is their emphasis on “you did this to yourself” gameplay. It really works well for a large group of somewhat incautious players. If your group lacks a good pace-setter or is prone to aimless wandering, they won’t get far, and they may just die for no good reason. It’s the sort of design which encourages consciously playing the game and owning your decisions, good and bad.

On the Death of Smallbeard: Because no DCs are listed for saving throws, I use a rule of “12+5.” Easy is DC 12, Medium is DC 17, Hard is DC 23, Nightmare is DC 27, and Fuck You is DC 35. I find these numbers work really well with 5th Edition math. I don’t like DCs less than 12 because I feel like you shouldn’t need to roll dice to accomplish a trivial task, although I might still make a player roll if there’s a chance the consequences could mess them up. In that case, I typically the DC at 5 or 8.

Anyway, in Smallbeard’s case, I set up an easy Athletics check (failure = you fall, take d6 damage), an (optional) easy insight check (failure = no result; success = Dex check DC becomes 12 instead of 17), and a medium Dexterity check to escape the pit (failure = the shadow’s shape is wrong, and you get cut in half). He made the climb, failed the insight, and failed the Dex check by 1. Some DMs would’ve been kind and fudged it, or given him another save for being so close. I am not one of those DMs.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Chaos Mace (Pathfinder Magic Item)

the Chaos Mace
+1 Morningstar | Damage: 1d8+1 | Critical x2 | Weight 6 lbs. | Damage: Bludgeoning & Piercing

The Chaos Mace is a +1 Morningstar with the following special properties:
On a natural to hit roll of 7, your attack automatically misses. Roll on Chaos Unleashed!
On a natural to hit roll of 13, your attack automatically hits. Roll on Chaos Unleashed!
On a natural 1 or 20, roll twice on Chaos Unleashed!

Chaos Unleashed! (d20)
All damage is magically reflected back at you! Fortitude DC 20 for half.
Summon an uncontrolled large elemental in an adjacent square. It hates you the most.
(Roll d8: 1. Fire, 2. Water, 3. Air, 4. Earth, 5. Lightning, 6. Magma, 7. Mud, 8. Ice.)
Minimum damage
The magic of the chaos mace paralyzes you! Fortitude DC 20 or become paralyzed for 1d4+1 rounds.
For the next 24 hours, there is a 1 in 6 chance you’ll encounter an enraged owlbear whenever you open a door or go into a room by yourself. You instinctively know this.
Miss? Horrible black insect wings grow from your back. You gain a fly speed of 30 for 1 hour.
Hit? The wings grow from your target’s back, and he/she/it gains a fly speed of 30 for 1 hour.
Suffer -4 penalty to random Ability for 1 hour.
Your legs fuse and become a snake body for the next 1d12 hours. Speed reduced by half. Can’t wear boots, belts, or other “made for bipedal mammal” stuff below the belt.
Your sweat smells like wildflowers for the next 2 hours. It’s nice.
Struck blind and deaf (Fort DC 20 negates – if you hit, it’s your target, if you miss, it’s you!)
NO MERCY! Gain +2 morale bonus on saving throws against fear. Lasts 1d10 rounds.
Time distorts! Make another attack against your target (if still living) or an enemy in an adjacent square using your full attack bonus.
Roll on Chaos Unleashed! d20 more times, ignoring duplicate results.
Gain +4 enhancement bonus to random Ability for 1 hour.
Deal an extra 2d6 electric damage*
Deal an extra 2d6 acid damage*
Deal an extra 2d6 cold damage*
Deal an extra 2d6 fire damage*
Maximum damage!*
Quadruple maximum damage! KILL KILL KILL!*

*Unless you missed. In that event, nothing happens.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Bleak Falls / Stonecroft Campaign Seed

Here's a brief write-up for a dark fantasy campaign that I've finally accepted I'm never going to run. Maybe someone else can get a kick out of it. As a DM, the pitch is essentially Darkest Dungeon: Players go to a remote village to find their fortunes, discover an open portal to a mega-dungeon (in this case, the Elemental Plane of Earth), and must undertake increasingly far-flung and dangerous missions while simultaneously guarding against threats from the "real world," such as corrupt officials, blizzards, wandering mercenaries, etc.

Darkest Dungeon fan art by Art Serge (

Solheim is a far-flung province of the Yorish Empire that borders the Goblin Kingdoms. Bleak Falls is a backwater village in Solheim. Stonecroft is name of the secret part of Bleak Falls that exists in the Elemental Plane of Earth.

Traveling to Bleak Falls/Stonecroft involves traversing the Moldwood. While the road is well-traveled, the forest is expansive and uncharted. To the north of Bleak Falls lay Howler’s Moor, Lake Gwynnet, and the village of Dunnsmouth—further north still lay the foothills of the Mountains of Dread. To the east of Bleak Falls lay the Dismal Bog. To the west of Bleak Falls, on the other side of the Moldwood, lay the Varthus Scrubland.

Bleak Falls is an unimpressive town until one learns of the Stone Gate which leads to Stonecroft and the Elemental Plane of Earth – a secret discovered in recent decades. Bleak Falls proper has a population of roughly 252, whereas Stonecroft’s population is 870.

Lord Crenshaw has a monopoly on trade in the village and oversees the transport of precious gems to and from Bluestone, a Dwarf Citadel ten days’ travel south of Bleak Falls. He is aided by Corwin’s Minotaurs.

Lord Thaddeus Crenshaw is the appointed mayor of Bleak Falls/Stonecroft.
One regiment of soldiers, the 463rd Footmen “Minotaurs,” guards the city. Their captain is the mercenary Corwin. He is on good terms with Lord Crenshaw and Constable Caringol.
Stonecroft has a church dedicated to Lashoon, though currently it is only tended by a single acolyte named Burnham. Burnham awaits news from the High Temple, not knowing what his proper place is in Friar Burton’s absence.
Inglebert von Steigler runs a curiosity shoppe rumored to sell magic items. It’s really just a Roma wagon, but it’s guarded by animated suits of armor and von Steigler is strict, forbidding careless divination magic in his presence.
Thornwell the sage has a vast library. He is a geologist, but knowledgeable about all manner of subjects. He offers the usual variety of sage advice.
Friar Burton, the spiritual leader of the town, has vanished.
Carver Gladstone is the iconoclast dwarf who runs the Quartermoon Inn.
Dyptheria du Monde is the town physician—colloquially, she is called the leech.
Lacy Goodfoot is the Halfling who runs the Copper Dragon Tavern.
Selene is the nymph Lacy keeps as a cook.
The Constable is Walter Caringol.
Flona the Halfling, Magus Bashool, and Hunberg are all mercenaries for hire.

Overseer 1015
is the leader of the Bluestone Dwarf Clan which toils in Stonecroft as part of a trade agreement with Crenshaw. He has a liaison named Tallspeaker 0012.
Stanislaus III is the Duke of Solheim. He has ties to House Lorrin of Yor.

Corfus Gunderhiem is the bishop who is supposedly responsible for the Moldwood region, though he has never set foot so far north. He will visit soon, and if impressed by the heroes, he may offer to sell the heroes a writ of taxation worth 12,000 gold for a paltry 300 gold. Of course, the heroes will need to go to Dunnsmouth to collect it…

Now Playing

Haven't done a post in forever. Here's an update on my gaming life as it stands today (10/10/2016). It kinda looks like I game five nights a week, but at most it's two. Because, you know, people work and sleep at bullshit like that.

Pathfinder (P6). P6 is a variant of Pathfinder in which characters reach max level at 6 instead of 20. Based on E6, it's essentially a way to keep the world feeling gritty and dark, while still incorporating the satisfying mechanical crunch of a third-ed system. I'm running Session 8 of a campaign I'm calling The Hall of Lanterns this evening, and I'm pretty stoked for it. Here's how I do Pathfinder stat blocks now:

Wraith. AC 18/18/15, hp 47, F+6 R+4 W+6, CMB +6/CMD 21. Melee touch +6 (1d6 negative + 1d6 CON [Fort DC 17 negates]; wraith gains +5 temp h.p. on each successful drain). Creates spawn in 1d4 rounds. Notices and locates all living things within 60 feet. Can’t attack and is staggered in sunlight.

Wraith-Spawn: As wraith, but with -2 penalty on all d20 rolls, 37 hp, and 1d2 CON drain.

All the relevant details are there... I already know it's an incorporeal undead because I've been playing D&D for a million years now, but if you're new, you might need more notations or just be cool with the bloated Pathfinder stat-blocks that currently exist. I like these short-hand versions 'cause they let me fit ten monsters on a page of paper.

Anyway, it's heavily influenced by Bloodborne and the Titanomachy. Might be one of my favorite ever homebrew worlds. I have no doubt I'll write about it later.

Nabbed this from the Steam Community page for S.T.A.L.K.E.R, artist unknown.

Mutant Year Zero. I'm playing a Stalker class (see above) who is also a bio-luminescent amphibian-mutant. I have shit for gear, so I basically look like Abe Sapien cosplaying as Paddington Bear. So far I've nearly killed myself by finding every cactus patch in the wasteland and scouting it with my face. My friends are a cannibal chef who is essentially Roadhog from Overwatch, a plant-man dressed like Donald Duck, the amazon villainess from Deadpool only she breathes fire and eats rot and thinks she's Emelia Clarke, and a four-armed musician who will never learn Wonderwall because of the Apocalypse. Two sessions in and we're trapped on a burnt-out hospital roof waiting for literal bee-people to play us a cassette tape that shows us the Truth of the Universe. I fucking love RPGs. We're playing like once every two weeks, and that's perfect.

Iron Kingdoms (Immortality). Neat system. Trying it out on a whim with a meet-up group; we're on session three and we meet like, once a month. I play a Knight-Cutthroat and basically just smash things. The campaign module is pretty much a railroad but the GM is really good at thinking on his feet so he adapts to let us get away with quirky stuff we want to do, and I really appreciate that. We all still go in on the railroad conceit and don't make life too hard for him, or at least, most of us do. The people who aren't me.

Good ol' D&D. Our long-standing Friday night campaign usually falls apart in the late summer, but comes back in November. We're in a kind of hiatus as we sort through odd schedules and try to find a time that works for us. I've been alternating between the deposed King of the Mole-Men and a pyromaniac fire-gnome Sorcerer and I'll be happy to play either character again, when it happens.

OD&D. Old school stuff. This is the Yoon-Suin campaign with Sigilis. We've done about three sessions since April. Scheduling has been rough. Even so, it's a fun campaign and I enjoy it when we play it.

So yeah, 4-5 active player characters and one campaign that I'm DMing. I live a pretty sweet life.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Musing on a Finished Campaign

I've been on a bit of a gaming hiatus after finishing up Crypt of the Devil Lich.

I feel like I learned a lot from running such an overly-structured campaign, and it's taken me some time to process it all. Here, then, are some thought-nuggets. I let these fall out of my head and lay in the proverbial dirt - take them for whatever they're worth.

1. No plan survives contact with the enemy. Your players will go the wrong way and kill the wrong people and it'll be your fault if you're caught off-guard, because you know they'll do that. So prepare to be caught off-guard, and enjoy it when it happens.

2. It's not "you versus them," it's you refereeing an adventure playground that your friends occasionally get killed exploring. If your GM starts thinking otherwise, run. The GM has the Monster Manual. He can kill you all whenever he likes.

3. What you enjoy won't always be the same as what your players enjoy. And that's fine! Consensus isn't required. Sometimes people have bad sessions or great sessions and sometimes they're the same session being experienced by different people. RPGs are awesome/frustrating like that.

4. Game with people who are good sports (and if they're not good sports, excuse yourself or game with different people. Life's too short). I was super lucky and played with some delightful people who were willing to play along with my "this campaign is really just a long experiment" contrivance and even invented the whole Church Police thing, burying dead characters with their magic items in the church cemetery instead of looting their bodies because they were Lawful Good, damnit! It should go without saying but when your friends are really into your game, it makes a big difference. Likewise as a GM you've got to be open to your friends' ideas and let them co-create the story with you. The screen isn't a platform to pitch your script idea or polish your novel; it's a game. You gotta be willing to play on equal footing with your friends.

5. For kicks, try running someone else's adventure exactly how you think the author would've run it. It'll be weird at first, 'cause obviously you've got your own style and like doing your own thing, but if you can stretch your comfort zone out enough to encapsulate someone else's vision, it can be really rewarding. It gives you a little more insight into the stuff other people like about gaming, and gives you a little more ammo for your criticism cannon.

6. If you're going to wing it, don't get caught. If you do get caught, at least make sure it's really interesting. If people lose interest, then you've fucked it up.

1. With regard to treasure... Static +1 bonuses are easy treasure to hand out but they're hard treasure to GM around. Every +1 bonus your players accrue is essentially permanent, unless you wanna be a dick and disjunction them or break out the magic-eating rust-monsters. That means those permanent +1s are going to contribute during every fight thereafter. That can really ruin combat-math. What's better? Giving away quirky single-use items. Yes, your players might steamroll an encounter above their weight class because they drank their potions of polymorph and turned into jungle giants, but that's a single encounter down, and besides, don't you think they'll remember it fondly? And isn't that what it's all about?

2. Read the whole adventure, then read it again. Change anything that strikes you as tedious or boring. If you're bored reading it, your players will be bored playing through it. If you still didn't pick up on a detail after your second read through, guess what? It was boring. Leave it out or change it.

3. Maps don't need to be complex to be interesting. Don't waste the session drawing every corridor or getting the dungeon layout just so. Likewise, not every room has to be an awesome blade-trap-with-enraged-air-elementals in order to be memorable. Sometimes interrogating the goblin NPC will be the highlight of the whole thing.

4. Most module layout is horrible. Seriously, it's like they expect you to memorize the damn thing. Do yourself a favor and make some notecards and type up a cheat-sheet for the most relevant stuff. Being a little extra productive before the game pays off in huge dividends.

5. Handouts are great and everybody loves them.

6. Long-ass rhyming riddles are garbage and nobody enjoys that shit.

7. Think ahead to the next adventure before you start running the current one. If you can throw in a little clue or scrawl or reference, it helps tie a whole bunch of disparate parts together. It's so worth it to see the wand of delay poison they got at second level be useful in the Final Battle, and to have your players recognize that if they'd only done X, they'd have the +7 Singing Sword of Mosquito Jones right now instead of this dinky +2 dagger, ah, curse the gods and their folly!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Apocalypse World: Recap and Review

So, Apocalypse World.

It's an RPG by Vincet Baker, the same dude who did Dogs in the Vineyard which, I'm told, is incredible. I think I would really like Dogs in the Vineyard, which is to say, I didn't like Apocalypse World but I don't think it's total crap, either. What follows is both my review of the system and my re-telling of our brief campaign.

The GM hands out eleven character folios. Each player gets to pick one, so there's no doubling up on classes. I rolled up a Battle Babe to go with the Hardholder, the Gun Nut and the... Scavenger? Should've taken better notes. The guy who gets Barter as his schtick. We had a nice, well-rounded group with plenty of kill and plenty of talk, our own street gang, and our own settlement to defend. Very Walking Dead: Season 3.

For me, character creation was the most fun aspect of the game. Your characters begin play knowing one another, and you have a History (Hx) score that determines how you interact with each other, mechanically speaking. Cool idea. And since you can't double-up on classes, each player's selection brings unique skills to the game. As you level, you get options to "borrow" abilities from the other classes in play, which means you can coordinate some really quirky stuff if you've got a mind for it. (Some GMs might rule that you can borrow abilities from classes which aren't in play, which further increases your character customization).

Our first session involved choosing our apocalypse. We did this by playing a one-shot, one-page RPG similar to The Quiet Year, but whose name eludes me. (Coincidentally, I recommend playing The Quiet Year over a couple stiff drinks with some nerdy friends. Last time, we wound up defending a desert island from lusty mollusk-men. It's good fun.)

Our Apocalypse was unique - a huge climate disaster had rendered most of Earth's atmosphere un-breathable, so we were confined to underground grottoes in subways and sewers, where the survivors desperately tried to grow crops using hydroponics and heat lamps. On top of that, we faced incoming threats from the remnants of the U.S. Army, a cult called the Children of Ash, and mole-men, which our GM eventually wrote out of the story because he thought they were silly.

Our particular setting felt very "Metro 2033"
Everything boils down to this: Roll 2d6. Add your relevant modifiers. Did you get a 10+? You succeed, exactly as you intended. Did you get a 7-9? You succeed, but the GM decides to what degree. You might kill your enemy, but be so overcome with bloodlust that you can't act next round. Or you might succeed in charming the merchant, but before he sells his secret stash to you, he needs a favor... 6 or less you fail.

There's a Doomsday Clock, too, that ticks closer to midnight with every failure. This is something I disliked - I'll go into why later. Health is handled in a similar fashion.

You level up by using your skills, but there's a twist: Your friends and your GM decide which skills will be useful in any given session, so your best stat might never get used to gain experience, while your worst stat might be the one you constantly rely on. Quirky. Anti-power-gamer technology in action, I suppose.

In our little hard-hold of New Plymouth, we have the following: Electricity, scrap, water, and guns. The rest? Well, we're hurting. That's why the Hardholder, the man-in-charge, decided to talk to the remains of the U.S. Army about getting some food shipped over in exchange for some of our people. The Colonel who showed up to represent the Army was a showy chauvinist, and he made a bold display of force by surrounding our little town with tanks. He didn't so much barter as threaten, demand, and steal. Not a good sign.

Later, that same day, after the tanks had left with a bunch of our supplies, a man calling himself Mr. Burns appeared to the Gun Nut in a vision. He was a floating skull covered in fire. He talked pretty, but everyone the Gun Nut told about the vision got real suspicious. Mr. Burns said the Children of Ash were coming, and that meant trouble for our little town.

Being a weird sort, I decided to do a little voodoo. The Battle Babe and the Gun Nut got all covered in body paint and asked questions of the Spirit World: We learned that the Children of Ash have a neat trick. First, they burn someone alive in a ritual. Next, everyone that person knows starts to burn. The closer you are, the more danger you're in. That's why, whenever the Children roll into town, they like to kidnap someone popular, someone everybody knows and loves, and burn him to a crisp. If they can nab a celebrity, they can barbecue an entire city.

The Scavenger knew a guy who had some info, so we set up a satellite phone and paid some bribes, etc, discovering that the Children were camped in a ruined gas station some five miles away. We rode out, guns blazing, and slaughtered thirty of them in a haze of blood and bullets. Turns out the Children don't need gas-masks to breathe the cloudy air. They don't even need food. They just eat ashes and turn that into sustenance. Also, those thirty? They were just a scouting party. Turns out there are millions of Children of Ash.

(OK - This is where the game started to fall apart for me. Not the system's fault, but rather our GM's. How the hell do you beat an enemy like that?)

The next day, all depressed, we woke to the sound of Mr. Burns approaching the city walls. He yelled out his demands for our leader in a fiery voice, and our Scavenger had a brilliant idea. We agreed to hand over a leader, at a set place and time, and (with a boxcar die roll) we convinced the Children it was a brilliant idea, too. Our Hardholder radio'd the Army Colonel and said, convincingly, that he'd cave to the Colonel's demands. You can have whatever you like, sir. Just meet me at this place and time. Come quiet - I don't want my people to know how badly I've failed them.

The story ended how you'd expect: The braggart Colonel meets us in the ruined town square at dusk, and a mob of ash-covered fanatics swarms him and his tankers, hoists him high, and burns him alive. A whole regiment of the U.S. Army goes up in smoke alongside him, and the Hardholder, who doesn't know the man so well, gets a bit crispy but lives to tell the tale. Our Gun Nut, though, has an ecstatic vision and very nearly finds a new religion on the spot. Something about a glorious conflagration, a holy inferno, and the Battle Babe punches him in the mouth and shuts him up.

A group of South American pirates showed up and started to posture aggressively. They docked in the harbor east of our settlement, and offered us all passage off the continent. The Hardholder wasn't hearing any of their honeyed lies. He was also getting damn sick of the Army, who had returned in greater numbers and re-established their charred campsite to the north.

After much deliberation, the Hardholder decided he was going to lead a gang to intimidate the pirates into fighting the Army. And...

This is where the game bogged down. The GM and the Hardholder had to look up rules for gang warfare, and the whole session devolved into rules lawyering and active reading. The GM ruled that the Hardholder's gang was much weaker, so the Hardholder's plan was doomed to fail.  The only other major action of the session came from the Scavenger, who stole a bazooka from the pirates and used it to sink their ship, rendering the work of the previous hour completely pointless.

I missed this session and I'm glad I did. Competitive book reading is the worst.

The Battle Babe returns to New Plymouth hard-hold, her motorcycle covered in mole-man skulls. She catches up on news, then suggests the group try again with the pirates: After all, she reasons, they only sunk one ship, and with her sword skills and overall hotness added to the mix, they have a much better chance of actually persuading the pirates to fall in line.

She also suggests a suicide pact. If any one of us gets captured by the Children, that one needs to die, and not by fire. It's the only way to keep the Children from killing all of us. The Hardholder agrees enthusiastically; he confesses that he sees no way to defeat the Children, and wants to abandon his stronghold. There's nothing good left in New Plymouth anyway. Either we die to fire, or we die by starvation, or we die by tanks. Unless we get out, we're just dead.

We ride on motorcycles to the coast and hold audience with the pirates - different ones from the ones the Scavenger killed with a bazooka - and they make us an offer. South America, where the air is breathable and there are no Children of Ash. All it costs us is our barter. We all decide it's best to abandon our hard-hold and go South, and do so, abruptly ending the campaign.

How anti-climactic was that?

Finding a way out of death traps is what RPG players do best. When a game is, essentially, one giant, inescapable death trap, players will find a way out by leaving the game. In my opinion, that's a huge flaw in game design, and one of the reasons I didn't like this game overall. There's no point in playing a game nobody can win. The Doomsday Clock is a count-down to the world ending. As players fail checks, and they will fail, the Doomsday Clock reminds everyone that their characters are ephemeral and everything they're doing is meaningless. Fun.

Our GM had enough material to run a single session well, and he did. Session one was great. Session two I missed, and session three lasted about forty minutes. I'm not sure why the GM wrote a campaign ending scenario into the third session of the game, but there you have it. The Children were too powerful. The exit was too visible. There was really only one way this was going to go.

I have no desire to play Apocalypse World again, though I admit that's unfair. There are a lot of good things about Apocalypse World. I still recommend giving it a go if one or more of the following applies to you or your group:

     * You've got a large group of gamers who don't want to learn a complex system. Mechanically, AW plays really fast and isn't very complex, so you could realistically have seven or eight players at a table and still feel like you all accomplished something at the end of the night.

     * You've got several die-hard post-nuke aficionados in your group.

     * You're only planning to run a few sessions, and everyone is operating with the understanding that you're all going to die. So, AW could be great for something like a post-nuke Battle of Thermopylae.

     * You've got a very collaborative approach to gaming; the GM borrows from players' ideas and players are constantly adding details and working together to create a cool thing. It won't work if you've got a GM who is like, "My way or the highway."

I admit, too, that my attitude is influenced by my game's totally unsatisfying conclusion and the sour attitude that crept in during the second-session rules debacle. Your mileage may vary, and honestly, I hope it does. If you GM it, here's my takeaway:

     * Don't build 'campaign ending escape clauses' into your game. Your players will take them as soon as they get frustrated. They might not even realize what they're doing until you reveal that the game is over.

     * Don't make enemies like the Children of Ash. While they're literary and would be really intriguing in a novel, there's a big difference between a novel and a game. 'Scary' and 'intimidating' are fun. 'Terrifying' and 'impossible' are not.

     * Make rulings quickly. If you can look up a rule in under a minute, do so. If you can't, arbitrate. Don't waste a game session reading a rulebook.

Lastly, if your GM is doing any of this stuff, tell him. Good GMs like feedback, if it's presented constructively, and even the very best GMs make mistakes. Oh well, Apocalypse World. At least we'll always have session one.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

oD&D Yoon-Suin Campaign Update

About a month ago, we wrapped up Session 6 of our twice-monthly game of oD&D. Our DM was running Yoon-Suin and adding modules from his vast collection as suits his whims. The DM was really feeling the urge to play Apocalypse World, so the group caved and said, "Sure, we'll give it a shot." (I'll discuss AW in another post)

Anyway, I thought it'd be fun to put up my character sheet and a little summary of our campaign. No idea when we'll get back to it. If I had to summarize Sigilis in a sound-byte, it would be this:

Despressed wizard quits dead-end job at Mages' Guild, takes up geocaching and gets a face tattoo. Now lives life of luxury and danger pursuing Neutral Evil agendas.
Art by Dreadweasel.
Sigilis the All-Knowing
Thaumaturgist of the Order of the Bloody Goat
Neutral (Evil) Human Magic-User, Level 5
Age 24, Ht. 5’11, Wt. 200

INT 15
WIS 10

Hit Points: 8
Armor Class: 10
XP: 10,817 (10% bonus) / 20,000
GP: 5,109

Languages: Trade Tongue (Common), Neutrality, Sauvi, Haludi, Parbati, Goblin, Dark Elven, Duergar
Home: Mages’ Guild of the Yellow City of Yoon-Suin; Bloodgoat Keep

Silvered Dagger
Cobra-Skin Quarterstaff
Eelskin Backpack
Numerous Belt-Pouches
Eelskin Waterskin
Engraved Stone Lantern
Flasks of Oil – 10
Flint & Steel
Chalk, String
Candles – 10
Black Antitoxin Tea
– 9 doses
Purple Opium (nootropic 1)
– 190 doses
– 10 on person

Excessive Hats
Fine Silk Robes
Sturdy Rubber-Soled Boots
Expert Climbing Gear

Roma Wagon
(a) pulled by donkeys
(b) with 4 sleeping cots
(c) dry good storage for travel
(d) two 5’ poles and one 10’ pole
(e) oak chest containing empty flasks – 10

ScrollLight, Sleep
Protection from Evil, Sleep
“Surviving the Interobular Aether”
“Communications & Signaling the Beyond”
“Flora & Fauna of Necropoli Centauri”
“Growing Abyssal Crops”
(scribed on a desiccated human arm)
“Addictions of the Gods”
(scribed on thin sheets of adamantium)
Persons of Interest
Kurt Angle
Hobbit Thief
Solomon, Alchemist (Will)
Half-Orc (Andrew)
Lord Urine [?] Boatmurder, Dwarf Minstrel (Dave)
Mān, Renodeep, & Chandra: charmed hirelings from Subarna
Thermidore, Crab-Man Hero
Golothab, Slug-Man Priest
faithful mind-slave, deceased
Bimsin & Tulsey,
hapless hirelings, deceased

Giant Rhino Beetles – 2
Messenger Beetles – 9
Donkeys – 4
Bees – 4 crates

Lightning Tattoo
(Tower of the Stargazer)

(1 in 6 chance to breathe underwater for d6 hours)
Sun Tattoo
(Temple of the Insect God)

(1 in 6 chance to ignore blindness)
Names in bold represent player characters and their retainers.
Session 1
: Sigilis was hired to translate a treasure map leading to duergar ruins in the highest peaks of the Mountains of the Moon. Began planning an expedition with the people who discovered the treasure map, Kurt Angle and Beludar. We’ll need duergar respirators in order to survive the extreme heights of the Mountains.

Discovered four potential sources of duergar respirators: (1) Duergar ruins near Subarna in the Hundred Kingdoms. (2) Duergar ruins on the Isles of Steam. (3) In the private collections of wealthy oligarchs. (4) In far-distant Quelong. Decided to follow up on the Subarna lead.

Original information hinted that a hobgoblin tribe in the ruined districts of the Yellow City would know more, so our group traveled for three days and met with them. Beludar convinced the Hobgoblin Regent to parlay, and made a deal wherein we would hire hobgoblin samurai on a regular basis in exchange for information. The Regent gave us directions to the duergar ruins, and we founded the martial Order of the Bloody Goat.

While traveling to the ruins, we encountered a ghost and bribed it with a donkey’s soul (making careful note not to cross paths with it again). We traveled to the Mosque of Orus, a village in revolt. Cultists of the elephant god were fighting with armored militiamen; we joined on the side of the militia and slew seventy-five cultists. The elders were grateful and gave us each three charmed slaves as payment.

Session 2: The elders requested we investigate the tower of the stargazer, [spoilers for that module incoming] a rogue member of their order. We obliged, hiring mercenaries (Sigilis hires two men-at-arms, Bimsin and Tulsey) and traveling some hours before coming across an ornate tower covered in lightning rods. Eleven men and women enter the tower, disarming traps and fighting its guardians. Nine leave with their lives (Tulsey is slain by a ghost during a chess game; another hireling is killed by a venomous rock spider).

We discover the stargazer, Calcidius, is trapped within a botched summoning circle. He is dangerously insane. Later, we confine him under a veritable mountain of salt (we're pretty sure it has magical properties... like, 90% sure). We also discover a
 star crystal, an eldritch idol, a library of books on Necropoli Centauri and astronomy, a telescope, and treasure chests full of copper. We return to the Yellow City to sell it.

Sigilis celebrates his new-found wealth by getting a commemorative lightning bolt tattooed on his face. The Order of the Bloody Goat begins building Bloodgoat Keep.

Session 3: Two months pass. Bloodgoat Keep is finished, and a score of our hobgoblin mercenaries seize the local topaz mines, creating unrest but establishing the Order’s presence in the region. Sigilis discovers it’s possible to travel to Necropoli Centauri, a planet apparently ruled by plant-men, but it will be very expensive and difficult.

Kurt hires an alchemist named
 Solomon. A slug-man priest named Golothab takes up residence near the Keep.

Eventually, the Order sets out to the duergar ruins near Subarna. Our expedition consisted of Sigilis, Beludar, Jang, Caca, Bimsin, and Paris, all riding beetles. Our trip took 9 days (18 round trip). On day three, we were attacked by a giant planarian and Bimsin was slain instantly. We killed it with fire; it was super effective. On day six, We met five celestial lions called Chinthes. We bargained for their service by giving them the
 star crystal. They will serve us for two months. They are VERY powerful. More on them later.

On day seven, we were ambushed by a huge scorpion-thing which Beludar killed single-handedly. We later encountered humans who worship the spider goddess Gou. They are from Subarna. Friendly, but they hate hobgoblins and their religion is really awful, so we will have to tread lightly (the spider goddess Gou ‘gives pleasure’ to the world… ugh). The Subarnans will buy our topazes for triple price. We did the math – it will cost 200 gp to send a guarded caravan to their city once a month, and anything we sell past that is pure profit.

We then found the duergar temple. It's in a sinkhole in the swamps. A ghost guarded the approach. We asked it what it wanted, and it said it wanted vengeance on its brother, the man who killed it. We agreed to find the ghost's brother and entered the what we believed to be the temple (later, we'd find out we were wrong - we went into a nearby ruin occupied by human bandits, not the temple proper). We ambushed a patrol, and the DM rolled to see if we'd found the ghost's brother. He rolled a 1 on a d30, and declared that, in fact, we had. We backtracked and gave him to the ghost to eat. We are thusly poised to investigate the rest of the temple. Because we have to rappel to get in, the chinthes can't accompany us, so they are guarding our mounts. The temple is full of humans who worship "the Insect God," and we believe they are gathering sacrifices for a potentially disastrous Dark Ritual...

Session 4: Joined by Solomon and his manservant Mandalay, the Order explores the tunnels surrounding the temple proper. We are beset by filthy, ragged bandits in close-quarter fighting, and although we ultimately prevail it is not without heavy costs: Mandalay is killed and Beludar, Caca (his henchman), and Jang are all grievously wounded. Solomon proved his worth ten times over with well-placed alchemical bombs (acid, fire, smoke – the bandits were no match).

Amusingly, the bandit leader, despite being a dirt-covered hovel-dwelling half-feral man-monster, wore enchanted armor and wielded an enchanted weapon (all of which went to Beludar). We looted their substantial horde of uncut gemstones and made for Subarna, where we spent the next two weeks recovering and resupplying.

We sent the chinthes along with a caravan (1500 lbs of chives) and detailed instructions for their further employment back to Bloodgoat Keep to be overseen by Kurt.

Additionally, we discovered a map leading to a single
 potion of plant control (Siglis is thrilled at the implication: We could mass manufacture these and launch an invasion of Necropoli Centauri!) and brokered a trade agreement with Subarna for monthly shipments of uncut topaz. Sigilis & Co. spent two weeks in Subarna, then, smoking opium, resting up, planning our return to the Temple of the Insect God, brewing acid, studying magic, and buying a small army. Specifically, Sigilis hired five crab-man warriors: Bisque, Thermidore, Newburg, Colorado, and Salad.

Session 5: Lord Urine Boatmurder, a dwarf minstrel of some renown, is hired on to assist us at the Temple of the Insect God under the pretense that he is a “sneaky guy.” Unfortunately, the Temple is now swarming with chint-on (ant-men) who are looting/piling bodies in a sinkhole. After a quick battle in which we dispatch a dozen warrior chint-on, an invisible Boatmurder sneaks into the Temple where he quickly discovers two horrible truths: It’s bigger on the inside, and he’s been cursed to transform into an insect. He miraculously escapes and Sigilis attempts to perform minor surgery but realizes the nature of the curse and stops while Lord Boatmurder still has a face.

We travel back to Subarna and supplicate the priests of Gou for aid – they succeed in halting Boatmurder’s transformation but warn us against further excursions. Poorly. They go on and on about treasure, and a greedy Sigilis
 needs to go back.

We sew beetle parts into our skin. We prepare our crab-men for war. We brew acid and drink nootropic teas. We recall two chinthes and build special rope climbing-harnesses for them and the crab-men. We return to the sinkhole and make an aggressive, focused attack on the treasure horde of the chint-on and, disastrously, we are defeated. All our crab-men except
 Thermidore and Mandalay Two are casualties. Beludar’s enchanted armor is ruined by acid. Even the chinthes are wounded. Despite felling over forty chint-on, we are forced to retreat back to Subarna to nurse our wounds. We tell the diarchs of the chint-on threat but are dismissed offhandedly—the fools! Thus, we prepare to find the potion of plant control, return to Bloodgoat Keep, and reassess the chint-on threat.

Session 6: We discovered the potion of plant control in the nearby temple to Taj, God of Suffering Women (Not as evil as it sounds – Taj is a god of childbirth). Acquiring it required the sacrifice of numerous reptiles in the presence of a mummified priestess. Returned to Bloodgoat Keep after a troubled journey (exploding snails; poor Jang was slain by a velvet hunting worm) and decided to conquer a nearby gold-mine.

Sigilis and Solomon traveled to the mining town of Jing Chun* with a coterie of henchmen, met with the foreman’s trade minister, and failed to
 charm him. Sigilis was beaten by guards and sentenced to hang, but Solomon paid his bail and we escaped. We returned to Bloodgoat Keep in time to witness a peasant uprising which, characteristically, we put down with ruthless enthusiasm, killing 2,000 peasants in a week.

Our bloodlust sated, we prepared to return to Jing Chun only to find a small battalion of hobgoblins marching on the keep, offering their services to us. Our current hobgoblins were incised by this, being of a rival clan, so Kurt thought quickly and told them he would hire them if they slew the rhino-demon haunting a nearby village – an impossible task. They left for the task with Kurt’s enchanted bone dagger, slaying an elephant along the way.

Kurt and Sigilis traveled to Jing Chun. While Kurt and his henchmen were visible, Sigilis and two chinthes were
 invisible. Using stealth and guile, Sigilis charmed both the trade minister and the foreman, extorting them thereafter to tithe most of the town’s income to Bloodgoat Keep. When Kurt and Sigilis returned to the Keep, fifteen of the seventy hobgoblins were waiting for us with the rhino-demon’s head. Kurt retrieved his bone dagger and inquired about the elephant meat they carried – rhino-demons can be hurt only by ivory, apparently – before ordering the Keep’s archers to fire and eliminate all survivors. A very satisfying, very profitable session.

*As a quick footnote, our DM admitted to using a random Chinese name generator to come up with Jing Chun, and I love the idea that it was, perhaps, done very poorly. I don't speak any dialect of Chinese, but I like to think maybe Jing Chun is the equivalent of an English town called Springfield Houston or London La Croix. Something about this just makes me chuckle.

Servants and Henchmen

MᾹN, Silent Samurai

Poison/Death Ray
AC: 4 (Chain, Shield)
Magic Wand
HP: 8
Turn to Stone/Paralysis
Sword 1d8
Dragon Breath
Longbow 1d6
Spells or Magic Staff

Mān wears a suit of lacquered armor and walks with a limp. He dresses primarily in white and never speaks, for his tongue was cut out long ago. He wears a solid iron amulet which resembles a skull.

RENODEEP, Mutant Wretch

Poison/Death Ray
AC: 5 (Chain)
Magic Wand
HP: 7
Turn to Stone/Paralysis
Battle-Axe 1d8
Dragon Breath
Longbow 1d6
Spells or Magic Staff

Renodeep was forever changed during an excursion to the Temple of the Insect God. He has mutated insectile legs which, while hideous, allow him to climb difficult surfaces with ease. He is also missing his left hand (an unrelated incident).

CHANDRA, Proud Warrior
14 [+1]

Poison/Death Ray
AC: 2 (Plate, shield)
Magic Wand
HP: 7
Turn to Stone/Paralysis
Greatsword 2d6+1
Dragon Breath
Spells or Magic Staff

Chandra is a proud warrior from Subarna. She dresses provocatively and wears a skull amulet identical to Mān’s.

14 [+1]

Poison/Death Ray
AC: 5 (Natural Armor)
Magic Wand
HP: 9
Turn to Stone/Paralysis
Crab Claws 2d8+1
Dragon Breath

Spells or Magic Staff

Thermidore is the only surviving Crab-Man from the battle at the Temple of the Insect God. He has an insatiable appetite for reptiles, slugs, and other crab-men. Sigilis respects him and paints his shell with bright yellow designs when the mood strikes him.